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Teaching Technology to Share

Author: Karin Geiselhart

RMIT University, Australia

Keywords: Electronic commerce, new technologies, online learning, higher education, globalisation, democracy.

Article style and source: Peer Reviewed. Original ultiBASE publication. Paper originally presented at the Seventh International Literacy and Education Research Network (LERN) Conference on Learning, RMIT University, Melbourne, 5-9 July 2000.



The use of information technology is one of the factors transforming education. It is changing the way students approach learning, and also the kinds of relationships that are possible between teachers and students. At a more fundamental level, these are part of the processes of globalisation that use technology as a tool. The potential for technology to democratise and empower, as well as educate, is enormous. However, these outcomes are not assured. Governance at all levels is also affected by the ways technology is designed and deployed. Thus, the use of information technology within educational institutions can be used to empower from within, not just provide 'student focussed' learning experiences. Institutions also need to learn to share more effectively.

This paper teases out some of the implications of democratic design criteria for information systems, and ways these may be used to ensure the continued relevance of educational structures. top

Education– promise or threat?

Most areas of everyday life are transforming as part of the move to an information based society, and education is no exception. Educators have been quick to realise they are in competition with other providers of cleverly packaged activities, such as electronic games, chat lines, and soon, interactive digital television. Nor is education immune to the impacts of globalisation. These include trends that can undermine cultural distinctions and foster ideological uniformity (Haywood 1995, Herman and McChesney 1997), or more hopefully promote local identity and solutions (Friedman 2000). A recent review of the development of aggregated education providers and new revenue models in the United States (Cunningham et al 2000) reveals that the application of electronic commerce and new technologies to the higher education sector is well underway.

The uses of technology are always socially determined (Feenberg 1991, Zimmerman 1995, Sclove 1995). Thus, the application of new communication technologies in government has so far been largely restrained to administrative processes (Gualtieri 1998, Geiselhart 1999), reflecting a conservative and largely internal discourse about their role. In education also, the use of new technologies will inevitably reflect the deeper values and assumptions of those who are in a position to design and implement the new systems.

The rapid development of online courses, capable of anywhere, anytime delivery, presents a golden opportunity for education. At the same time, the accompanying commodification of education could diminish widespread educational values. These values include diversity, tolerance, open dialogue and questioning of received wisdom or status quo.

These challenges to educational values are part of wider discourses about what governance means in a global information society, and about access and control of the information 'commons'. The detailed analysis of the transformation of Australian higher education structures in Marginson and Considine (2000) leaves little doubt that these issues will be critical to the future role and status of universities. One commentator believes that if they fail to rise to the challenges of new ways of learning, universities 'will make splendid ruins'. 1

Just as there is no escaping the influence of technology, there is no evading issues of governance in shaping their use. Governance is used here in the general term of management, but also control and forms of participation. Marginson and Considine (2000, pp.7-9) provide a detailed concept of governance in relation to universities, and describe it as encompassing 'internal relationships, external relationships, and the intersection between them.'

This paper also views governance as normative; that is, democratic. Governance can be considered at many levels: the organisation or institution, the local, the national or the global. Good governance implies similar mechanisms at every level: those which foster plurality and diversity of inputs, broadly based agenda setting, transparency and accountability of decision making and above all, participation of the governed. The technological facilitation of these mechanisms may be seen as protocols for the design of information systems, based on the definition of democracy given by Dahl (1989). This paper argues that provision of these normative mechanisms can help create a dynamic and adaptive educational environment. Such measures may even be essential for the long term sustainability of education as a source bed to maintain and reinvigorate democracy in an information age.

The remainder of this paper looks at some of the implications and impacts that new technologies have for education, and links these to broader questions of educational governance. The author suggests that adopting design principles of openness and participation, both in the technologies that support education and the processes that manage it, serves a dual purpose. As in the business sector, good governance can enhance resilience and adaptability, by ensuring good ideas are given the opportunity to thrive. Good governance is good for the business of education. More importantly, democratic governance within education supports and strengthens the values that are ultimately the life blood of our society. Top

New education models

In a now famous article, Raymond (1998) set out the metaphors which distinguish the emerging patterns of electronic communication and creativity from those of the past. He described the ‘cathedral’ model as monolithic, controlled from above, dominating, rigid and permanent. He says this is the approach of proprietary software development.

He contrasts this with the ‘bazaar’, where an unstructured exchange at a very local level fosters a robust diversity, and function is independent of a clear locus of control. This is typical of ‘open source’ software development, where the code of a program is available for free to any interested person to contribute to and hopefully improve. The most famous example is Linux, the operating system based on Unix.

In the bazaar, this creativity is heavily dependent on the Internet for rapid electronic communication and sharing of information. Several of the strategies or assumptions of the ‘old’ economy melt away in the bazaar: ownership and protection of intellectual property becomes less relevant; because ownership is dispersed. Pricing changes because the exchange of the good does not diminish its availability; and the developers themselves are the value-adding intermediaries.

Although Raymond focussed on the usefulness of this approach in debugging software, others have read more into the open source movement. As Forge (2000) notes: ‘open source is about free speech…in the sense of creativity …freely sharing ideas in software is about communicating with hindrance. Open source software could almost be seen as a return to the political ideas of syndicalism and shared benefit through freedom from ownership.’

This approach has influenced education in subtle ways, as the potential for electronic courseware alters even traditional classrooms. Many students are impatient with the ‘received wisdom’, and demand experiential learning. The lecture theatre has become more interactive, interspersing questions and scenarios. One online course developer described the new environment as: more individualised, more student focussed, valuing the students’ life and cultural experiences, and oriented towards problem solving. 2 In an online learning situation, students are much more dependent on their own resources, but are guided in this by both the ‘facilitator’ and by other students. Thus, a more diverse, customised learning ‘bazaar’ replaces education as a ‘cathedral’. Students have greater choice in shaping their own learning experience. This may be the ‘democratisation of education’, complementing Friedman’s (2000) list of globalisation leading to the democratisation of finance, information, technology and decision-making.

This is more suitable than a fixed curriculum which may be out of date before the degree is granted. A user-centred approach equips students to continue learning as the world changes, as is now expected in most work situations. It is consistent with education as ‘leading forth’, and the goal of developing a capacity for independent and original thought.

The implications for educational governance are similar: staff also need to participate, to help shape their teaching environment, and to have administrative structures that respond to their changing needs. The 'cathedrals' of administration and management are even less appropriate, and more likely to lead to dysfunction, than in the distant past of a decade ago. And yet, the more consultative, collegial approach seems to be giving way to more managerialist structures in many institutions (Marginson and Considine 2000). top

Many screens one picture

National and global information infrastructure clearly influences the provision of information systems for educational providers. Both telecommunications and mass media are moving closer to the cathedral model. Ownership and control of content is now more concentrated than ever before, and these processes seem to be intensifying (Herman and McChesney 1997). There is a blur between carrier and content, with huge incentives for whoever owns the access to key regional markets such as China. The next ten years will see the delivery of information and education via common channels. This will have most impact on areas that are currently just awakening to mobile phones and the Internet.

If profit alone becomes the driving force behind the mass delivery of education, it is likely that the values of profit making will be passed along with the mathematics, not just the MBAs. Corporate public relations practitioners see education as an essential channel to promote their views and values (Stauber and Rampton 1995, Beder 1997, Carey 1995).

Several authors have described the emerging information infrastructure as a global nervous system (Beniger 1986, Mander 1996), which resembles the Internet itself. The Internet was conceived and designed as a network of networks, intended to have no centre that might make it vulnerable to missile attack. The patterns of communication arising from this infrastructure have indeed been web-like, breaking down hierarchical structures and causing a near critical mass of creative destruction along the way. But now massively centralised commercial interests are positioning themselves to become ‘digital landlords’ with control over content (Chester 2000). This would repeat the history of other technologies in the last century, namely radio and cable television (Herman and McChesney 1997).

How can educational groups maintain a commitment to diversity and alternative perspectives, if information becomes increasingly owned and managed by corporate sources? How might these capital cathedrals affect the ways education and information are structured and delivered? The next section outlines some approaches that use new technologies to leverage information to provide collective knowledge resources, rather than containing it in expensive isolation. top

Education as information brokerage

In an economy based on information, there are many ways to add value to streams of digits and then charge a premium for selling it on to new users. Money has always been made from information about financial markets and trends, but the value of these transactions now dwarfs trade in goods and services. Trading in personal information is also lively, and the expansion of intellectual property rights over many kinds of information is big business indeed. As a university legal officer noted, ‘What is a university if not its intellectual property?’ For educators at all levels, developing new resources and course materials, creating new online screens to assist students, and even incidental materials such as quizzes and lecture notes, all have potential value when they are traded or repackaged.

Thinking in these terms has not been part of the traditional approach to teaching. Educators and academics, like librarians, have been very generous with their information, knowledge and materials. And it is not difficult to extrapolate where the extremes of intellectual ownership can take us: in a world where all information is pay per view, the hurdles to learning or creating new knowledge could become disincentives. Already, there is little incentive for writing textbooks or courses for any audience less than global.

In the competitive world of intellectual property, educational institutions face the dual challenge of creating knowledge and sharing it. Creating and rewarding value, while maintaining a commitment to collaborative and generous provision, is fraught with difficulty. One way is to build networks that capitalise on niche groups and their strengths, while still generating a return on investment. The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project (MESL) illustrates the kind of collaboration that is likely to bear both social and financial fruits over the longer term. This three year project brought together a number of American art museums and universities to explore intellectual property rights in relation to educational uses of digital images and to recommend models for site licensing (Stephenson and McClung 1998). It was sponsored by the Getty Information Institute, which seeks to increase accessibility of art and culture through computer technology, with a special interest in digital libraries.

Two independent business models grew out of the MESL, showing that applications can follow quickly and maintain a substantial public benefit component. This project brought together essential ingredients for success with globalised information: educational institutions, owners of intellectual property (the museums), a direct acknowledgement of the need to deal with legal issues, and a source of funding. This source might be venture capital, government, or a philanthropic institution; the critical factor is alignment of values to include social benefit.

Projects such as the MESL illustrate the benefits of pooling resources across educational institutions. This approach overcomes parochial ideas of ownership, and achieves a balance between public benefit and private profit by realising that even the rarest intellectual property is most valuable when it goes forth and multiplies.

Closer to home, the long term success of Education Network Australia (EdNA) is no doubt at least partly due to its distributed ownership and structure. While nominally ‘owned’ by all the Ministers of Education and Training in Australia, it is administered by a company. The design and content encourages ‘collaboration and communication amongst and between the education sectors through communication links and information sharing.’ It easily bridges the gap between the local and the global by its seemingly endless links to projects, groups, discussion lists, notice boards and other resources. This outreach allows for economies of scale, saving time and effort while helping to establish best practice in areas that eventually might have economic implications, such as how to manage online assessment. These ‘many to many’ forms of communication can be highly efficient, and created a distributed decision making and consensus building network.

Several other features of EdNA highlight its role in shaping its own context. Firstly, the entities behind EdNA are active in establishing standards and agreements that enable online collaboration in education. Secondly, the abundant number of papers and analyses about EdNA and its role in the knowledge society provides a reflective resource that goes beyond technical standards in reinforcing the capacity of the educational community to participate in its own governance.

These examples embody in many ways the new patterns of electronic commerce. Their value lies in their networking connections, which put people, information and ideas together in ways that may create value exchanges in the future. Many universities have adopted similar approaches when developing electronic courses, or portals for providing students and staff with information about the university. Although centrally developed and managed, they seek the maximum flexibility for users, and accept incremental 'tinkering' as a necessity. But examples of such interactivity in university governance are less frequent. Over time, this could lead to the predicted 'splendid ruins' if educational managers fail to foster interactivity on key issues for their institution's evolution. top

Democracy in an Information Age

The World Bank has found that economic success for a country is positively related to good governance (Kaufman, Kraay, Zoido-Lobaton (1999). It is reasonable that benefits accruing to a nation from such principles would be repeated at the smaller scale of a state or local education system, or a university.

Others have articulated rights and responsibilities for the information age (Guidi 1998, Langham 1994) or democratic design criteria Sclove (1995), or a Charter for Citizens of the Global Information Society (Cameron and Geiselhart 1997). 3 The protocols suggested here are based on Dahl’s criteria for democratic process, which include effective participation, voting equality at the decisive stage, enlightened understanding, and control of the agenda (Dahl 1989). These protocols have particular relevance to the information infrastructure, but they are quite general. That is, they apply at any level of governance, from the organisational to the transnational. There is no space in this paper to elaborate on the theoretical analysis of this connection between scales; the author has provided a fractal model for these relationships (Geiselhart 1999). It is important to note, however, that the patterns created at different levels of governance influence each other. That is, the loss of democratic function even within a small school system reverberates to reinforce non-democratic forms of interactivity throughout the systems which it is part of.

The following table presents suggestions for shaping a democratic information infrastructure, along with the salutary findings from the author’s two year case study of a central co-ordinating department in Canberra:

Protocols for a democratic information infrastructure

Evidence from major case study

Universal access

Universal access to desk top

Appropriate training

Training inadequate for developmental participation

Transparency of information, including feedback and agenda setting, strong freedom of information provisions. All major decisions fully textualised.

Little availability of corporate minutes, decision processes, no internal FOI provisions

Deliberate creation and maintenance of a public space for communication, protected from commercial pressures

Limited public space available but not fully supported, no further development

Strong interactivity (open ended input)

Moves towards narrow inputs

Broadest and earliest possible participation in agenda setting and internal policy development

Participation in agenda setting and internal policy decreased

Minimisation of commercial in confidence protection

High levels of commercial in confidence protection

Freedom from direct or indirect censorship

Signs that surveillance and censorship were increasing

Maximisation of privacy protection

Possibility of anonymous communication removed

Equity in rights of transmission

Theoretically available, in practice upwards communication restricted to practical tasks

Provision for lateral and anonymous communication and ballots

Lateral communication widespread, ballots only for certified agreement

Availability of alternative forms and sources of information

Some availability of alternative views, information increasingly managed from above

Provision for localised information and dialogue

Local discussion possible, dialogue on non work specific tasks dampened.

Mechanisms for reflective deliberation about the information system

Little such provision

In the case study above, the changes in the information dynamics were accompanied by loss of both staff and morale, and quite likely loss of productive function as well. It is credible that the accompanying loss of participation might have a negative impact on the wider Australian policy process and society.

It is likely that successful educational enterprises include many if not most of these protocols in their design and management. The suggested protocols might guide both designers and users of information systems who wish to ensure maximum communicative capability.

The area of scholarly communication, with less clearly defined economic goals, is no doubt more challenging. Harrison and Stephen (1996) survey this field and its trials, and note the importance of support from university leadership when implementing innovative technology projects. They provide a number of outstanding examples of excellence in educational uses of information technology to promote cost-effective information exchange while maintaining traditional educational values. Among these are Harrison and Stephen’s CIOS project, which continues to be a rich resource for communication scholars. Schrage (1998), calling for better networking between years K-12 and higher education, argues that the design of the relationships is always more important and more difficult than the design of the information. top


The application of new technologies to education includes a wide range of possibilities. This paper has discussed several examples that show new ways of communicating. Technology, while important, is never an independent factor. Equally important is agreement on the underlying values and forms of governance that determine how information is exchanged and used. Reflective, empowering uses of technology are less common in institutions strongly influenced by economic rationalist approaches. This paper suggests that democratic standards for communication are critical to both short and long term success.

For teachers at the action level, having an understanding of how technology can facilitate open patterns of communication can be valuable as they grapple with the multiple convergences and challenges of our changing times. Their awareness and input at every level is needed to ensure standards of privacy, openness, accountability and independence. top


1 Walter Stewart of Silicon Graphics, speaking at AUSWEB01 in Coffs Harbour
2 RMIT lecturer, personal communication
3 See Geiselhart (1999), Appendix A for a list of similar proposals.


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About the author

Karin Geiselhart
Post Doctoral Research Fellow
in Electronic Commerce
RMIT University, Australia

E-mail: karin.geiselhart@rmit.edu.au

Copyright © Karin Geiselhart, 2001. For uses other than personal research or study, as permitted under the Copyright Laws of your country, permission must be negotiated with the author. Any further publication permitted by the author must include full acknowledgement of first publication in ultiBASE (http://ultibase.rmit.edu.au). Please contact the Editor of ultiBASE for assistance with acknowledgement of subsequent publication.
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